Charles Albanico stood on his balcony. He held pruning shears in one hand and grasped the stem of a pale caladium in the other. The wooden box in front of him was filled with these plants, their spidery green veins segmenting heart-shaped leaves. The chill morning air tightened Charles’s naked skin. He shivered once, as though sloughing off an unwanted garment, and felt the stipples rise in a quick wave from his upper back to his buttocks. As the light shifted and spread, he paused to watch the sky. A storm had blown through the early hours, washing the grounds and leaving behind steaming shuffleboard courts and the smell of chlorine and wet grass.
A group of retired and restful men had already gathered below him and were trying to follow the gestures of the itinerant ta’i chi instructor. His movements were flawless, brown thighs erupting in patches of muscle as he crouched and turned, turned and crouched. Other residents sheltered under a magnolia tree. The ones with sensitive eyes wore wraparound sunglasses as dark as welders’ goggles. They had a military flair as they looked beyond the privet hedge to the gauzy mist vanishing off shore.
Charles positioned his shears around the stalk and was about to close when he sensed Anthony behind him and turned.
Anthony was aging the best of them, still smooth and just a patch of hair frosted with age. He had the weary grace of a former dancer. Hipshot behind the screen door, his figure suggested not so much annoyance as an alliance of fragile angles ready to collapse and rearrange itself.
“What is it, sunshine?” Charles tried again.
Anthony dropped into the sofa and sighed. The red silk of his robe bloomed and wilted around him. His shins gleamed like polished wood against the threadbare fabric.
“What are you doing out there naked? Come here, hunbun,” he said.
Charles put the shears down and went in. Anthony looked up at him, his expression frank and direct, utterly unmoved by the body that had just entered.
“Let’s go out. It’s our last day,” Anthony said. “You may not want to do anything, but I can’t sit here waiting.” He compressed his lips. Charles positioned himself behind a chair. Mirrored panels lined two walls and doubled his truncated reflection.
“Why don’t you go out on your own? I’ll stay here and be moody.”
Anthony had begun rummaging around through magazines and under pillows. He knelt down to open their credenza and turned to face Charles, his eyes speckled with anger.
“Today of all days I don’t want to be alone, Charles.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t clutch your pearls, Anthony. What do you want to do? And what the hell are you looking for?” Charles leaned against the dancer’s barre that ran the length of one mirror. Anthony held on to this relic, though he’d stopped practicing long ago.
“Found it!” Anthony said.
He sat and opened a shiny cigarette case. Its chromium skin deflected a sunbeam to Charles’s belly, where it trembled just above his navel. Anthony struck a match.
“Is that pot? I thought you quit ages ago!”
The sunspot disappeared with a click.
“Don’t clutch your pearls, Charles. A little hit won’t hurt.”
Charles licked his lips and frowned. He didn’t want to argue with Anthony, not today. He stared instead into the mirror, pretending to concentrate on the cluttered spaces behind him. Huddled together on a low-lying shelf were the reminders of the man he had been. There was the anthology of critical essays on James Dickey he’d edited as part of his tenure campaign. “The Undying Cry of the Void,” he’d called it, still trying to be hip or brazen at that point in his career. He’d contributed his own long essay to the volume, unwieldy hermeneutical nonsense about paternity and blindness on what was in fact his favorite poem, “The Owl King.” Charles felt traitorous when he remembered what his critic’s scalpel had done to the poem.
Next to that, slim and still wrapped in plastic, was the monograph on Herman Melville he’d written for college students. With chapters titled “Comic Technique in ‘Moby Dick’” and “Ahab’s Tragic Vision,” it was no wonder it had been remaindered long ago. His last book, a list of “essential” German verbs, he’d compiled when he was desperate for money. The work of conjugating half a thousand verbs fourteen times each had almost made him crazy, yet it was on the shelf, too.
Charles looked at Anthony. The only good to come from his adjunct years of teaching classes in literature, history, languages—anything, really, as long as it paid—was Anthony. He was the aging auditor who raised his hand, ready for enlightenment. His questions had rarely been relevant, his comments even less so; but Charles had been grateful to have one student who chirped now and then, and stayed after class for more. So grateful, they started dating before the semester, his last, had ended.
“We could try cleaning this place up. Throw some stuff out. A big purge.”
Anthony shook his head and inhaled, making the joint crackle like bacon. “I like our mess,” he said in a strangled voice. “I’ll settle for the beach.” He released a vaporous cloud and whistled his respect for the weed.
Charles conjured the weight of sun on his skin and stepped from behind the chair. Reflected back to him were depressions and ridges and limestone outcroppings. The softer portions of his arms and legs were stratified. When his physician held his X-rays aloft, they were wary intruders, spying through strange windows into a home that wasn’t his anymore. He saw twilit bones and one end of a stent curled like a worm in his bladder. Worn vertebrae held taut like a frayed hawser. Riveting this ruined landscape together, his kidneys, flabby ectoplasm, medical waste.
“What!” he screamed. He aligned his eyes with Anthony’s mirrored ones and gripped the chair.
“Jesus Christ. Yes, all right, the beach. These mirrors are making me dizzy anyway. Just put that thing out. The kidney is barely yours anymore.”
The two men crunched over the crushed clamshell of the parking lot to their Mini Cooper. The sun was high and a wind had picked up, bringing with it the familiar tang of pine sap and salt. They loaded the trunk and Charles swerved out through a stand of trees to the main road.
They were going to Moon Beach, so called because it formed a sweeping crescent that terminated in two horns protruding into the sea. It was woven with sandbars and undercurrents, but that’s what pitched the waves so high, which they both appreciated. A narrow road continued around the northern horn past coves and bays to hamlets and restaurants. The southern headland, however, was a solitary hill, beyond which lay open water.
The sky was high and wide open. The only disruption of its expanse was a red kite high on a taut line anchored somewhere far down the beach. Charles lowered a window into its sheath. Scrub oak pruned by salt spray blurred past on one side. On the other, a strip mall gave way to canebrake and dunes.
After they’d been driving a while, Anthony turned to Charles.
“Did you bring your pills with you? They want you starting those today.” He pinched Charles’s arm. “So you don’t reject me tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that.” Anthony giggled. “Man of my kidney.” He hummed a few notes before going silent again, well pleased with himself. Charles swallowed and patted his shirt pocket. “Yes, mama, here they are.” He rattled the pills in their box and pressed on the gas pedal.
When they reached the parking lot, Anthony said with genuine disappointment, “That sea is not fit for swimming.” There it was, the sea, crumpled and coruscating. They collected their beach gear and found a patch of sand in the crowd. Charles wore a shirt and trousers and a wide-brimmed hat. Anthony had his swimsuit on under a green sarong. He appraised Charles as he removed his shirt.
“Good god, look at that torso!”
Charles coughed. Compared to Anthony he was a stick of alabaster. Bronze heads lifted from where they rested and winced at him.
Anthony lowered his voice and smiled. “You’re pale in a good way, an aristocratic way. And in that hat you’re a bit Virginia Woolf.”
“And why don’t you go to the lighthouse?” Charles removed his hat. “Pothead.”
Anthony raised a finger and made a sizzling sound. “Good one.”
“You’re stoned. Anything is funny.”
Charles slipped out of his trousers, and they both turned to watch the waves rolling in like metaphors.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” Anthony asked.
“Well, at least we’ll be together. In its way, this is the ultimate bromance, you know. Matching scars for the two of us.” Anthony gripped Charles’s fingers and smiled like a demidevil. “Me in you, forever.”
Charles said nothing. He didn’t see the romance of anyone in him, forever. Right now he wanted most of all to be alone. The waves must have been coming in on high tide. Water surged to shore and rose in deep scrolls, turning ice-green where the light shone through. Farther out, wind chipped the tips of the heavier and slower ones.
“Charles, tomorrow is a big deal for both of us, you know. Why are you being so moody?” Anthony’s face darkened. He crossed his arms and punched the sand with his heel. “What’s your problem?”
That was a good question. Charles nudged a scallop shell with his toe. It was faded rose, turning dark gold near the hinge. A single white line zigzagged across its fluted ribs.
“I’d have to say this,” Charles answered, pulling at his elastic elbow skin.
“What are you talking about?”
“This,” he pulled repeatedly at his elbow as though it were a bell rope. “Skin, meat.”
“Wait. Are you angry at me of all people?”
“It’s not that… it’s not… nothing.”
“I know it’s not nothing.”
“No, I mean…”
Charles stopped and blasted air from his nostrils. He glared back at Anthony like a trapped animal. Anthony’s lips opened and then closed. He quickly turned away and slapped his thighs. “I think I will take that walk to the lighthouse. Coming?” Charles shielded his eyes. The salt-scrubbed air blurred the white column and its wide black rings.
“Not yet. I’ll catch up to you.”
“Just promise me you won’t go in there alone. It’s rough today.”
“Don’t pout, Charles. It’s good to be afraid of the ocean.”
Anthony’s anklet winked with each gazelle step he took. Charles closed one eye and squinted after him. Right there, beneath Anthony’s seven layers of skin, through a kudzu of fascia to just behind the eleventh and twelfth ribs, was a kidney—his kidney, their kidney, the kidney. They’d schooled themselves in the alchemy of blood becoming urine, the renal architecture of calyces and columns and pyramids. It was just an organ, he knew, a quarter-pound of flesh. But he’d become possessed by it. Anthony was all he had. Their bond felt more like a debt that felt more like guilt, and when the guilt circled back on the bond it became tighter. A voiceless part of him hated Anthony for playing such an acquiescent role in this shell game.
Charles did not follow him to the lighthouse. Instead, he walked the other way along a drift line of bleached shell shucks and eel grass. He found a surfer’s watch still telling time. It was just after midday. Farther along, two monarch butterflies rose from a stand of rocket grass, jittery on the strong wind. The dry sand was hot, so he moved closer to the water. Tongues of foam slid to his feet and withdrew. He inspected the lacquered interior of a mermaid’s purse, and felt a little foolish when he found it empty. He walked and walked, past the nudists, beyond the last parasol and lifeguard chair. The rubbery remains of a saucer jellyfish were stippled and as silver as falling water. Four crescents were arranged in a quatrefoil on its crown. Aurelia Aurita. He tossed it in the air, but the disc broke to pieces before hitting the ground.
Charles stood still and slid his hands down his chest and over his ribs to the ridge of his pelvis. Crista Iliaca. Here the scalpel would enter and dig. A trench would open up to hold a piece of Anthony.
Kidney of his man.
This was still his body.
He ran and threw himself into a wave, bursting out the other side. The early rain had left the water very cold. He panted and was aware of the pressure in his heart and lungs, the blood streaming through him. Would one drop pollute the entire sea? Another wave crested, and he plunged under it, pushing off the bottom and swimming out to the wild water he’d seen from shore.
Green to gray to gunmetal blue, hand over hand, he rose and fell on the surge. Anthony was right: swimming was foolhardy with his deranged numbers and scrambled electrolytes. He was at the extreme reach of this illness, his physicians told him, at the heliopause, before things got really bad. Yet it felt right to be here. More than right. Muscles better, nerves more. He’d lived with glomerulonephritis—inside him, between him and Anthony—for so long now. Yet out here it was a foreign sound on his tongue.
Charles paused when he thought he’d come far enough. Below his slow-pedaling feet he sensed deep upon deep dropping down, from twilight to midnight to an underworld of gentle marine snow. Deep salt water spread away from him in all directions like a blank page. He felt himself becoming a lovely nothing, or at most a gust of rain, a handful of pips tossed from a ship’s stern. He floated on his back and extended his arms. His heartbeat came and went in the ringing silence when he lowered his ears and closed his eyes.
What multitudes coursed beneath him? He tried not to think of the crazed-looking sharks they’d seen at the aquarium, their unblinking eyes and the way they moved, slate-gray and soundless, behind the thick glass. They were at the top of the great chain of consumption, but, when their boneless bodies died, the sea stripped them of skin, cartilage and organs, leaving just teeth behind. Animals of all kinds were below him, suffering and changing from reef to trench, bodies into different bodies—seahorse eating plankton, crab eating seahorse, cod eating crab, shark eating cod, shark eating shark.
He smiled with pleasure. His world was still recognizable in name, but very much changed. Through the chinks in his crumbling bodily systems, it bore through with a fine acetylene radiance. Or perhaps the radiance he thought was burning holes in him was flaring from inside him, italicizing the mundane beneath its glare. A kite in the sky, petal-drift beneath a magnolia tree, a slatted drift fence disappearing beneath sand—they flickered with a curious and tender light he’d come to expect and love.
A strong wind feathered the glassy waves. Now that it no longer mattered, years after he’d lost his tenure bid, Charles thought he finally understood what the Owl King meant. Every light really was too feeble to show him the world as it must be, as he knew it had to be.
When Charles opened his eyes again, the world, in fact, did not look the same. How long had they been closed? A wave folded over him and he gasped. He quickly righted himself and had a look around. The late-afternoon air glittered. The yellow arc of the beach curved in front of him, its two points locked with the sea, but it was farther away than he thought plausible. The shore raced in one direction, he in the other, and as he did the golden tussock sloping down the southern headland grew more distinct. He had to get back to shore. Charles made a few desultory strokes, but soon gave up. The waters were jagged, and whatever had brought him here still had momentum.
He considered his situation. The slow and silent dissolution of drowning seemed to him the worst of deaths. Still, he was calm. Charles wondered if his body had stopped producing adrenalin, too. The sea sprawled behind him. It’s good to be afraid of the ocean. Why should he be? Let it roll him out to where the big fishes play. He would not be hungry for air. Charles had lost control anyway. His body had betrayed him. He was no longer whole, just a mosaic of creatinine, nitrogen, zinc, magnesium, and iron. His blood was turning into piss. To survive, he’d have to submit to medicine, become commingled with Anthony and a foreigner to himself. It was either Anthony or dialysis.
Still, still. Was there no other way? Did nature really admit no third thing? He swiveled from the shore to the unpunctuated horizon. It demanded less, offered more. He’d rather submit to it, to the tides and the fathoms. He saw himself crossing over the ribboned shipping lanes to places…places rich and strange. Was the bottom of the sea cruel? He’d find out for sure. He was eager, yes, eager, to discover what changes lurked in his bones, in what form he’d wash up— a medusa, maybe, or one of those lambent veils billowing around in sunless caverns. He smiled again. He’d be a monster found at the edge of old maps, a chimera guarding the blank spots where angels fear to tread. He saw the slash of rough blue where open water began. “Lost at sea.” It was rebellious, romantic, resurrectionary.
Then he heard a sound. The ca-chunk, ca-chunk of a fast motorboat reached him. It grew louder, until Anthony’s voice rose above the whine. “There he is! There he is! Slow down, you’ll hit him!” A boat with the word RESCUE emblazoned on its side rooster-tailed a short distance from Charles before its driver, a golden-brown specimen, cut the engine. Charles and Anthony eyed one another for a while. Anthony opened his mouth, but Charles spoke first.
“Anthony, what are you doing here? I didn’t know your voice went to high F.”
“What am I doing here? I specifically told you not to go swimming!”
“Go to hell. I’m the Owl King. Every light too feeble to show my world as I know it—,” Charles sputtered on spindrift.
Anthony rolled his eyes. The driver zeroed in on Charles and jabbed his index finger at a small metal ladder attached to the side of the boat.
“Who’s your friend?”
“This is Roy.”
Golden Roy stopped poking his finger and raised five in greeting. Charles hadn’t expected that.
“You’re Charles and I’m Anthony! What the hell is an owl king?”
“What’s an Owl King! You’ve obviously never read my work—just like everyone else.”
“I can’t hear you over this wind!”
Charles raised his middle finger and displayed it to Anthony and Roy.
Anthony whispered something and then shouted, “Look at me Charles! You’re Charles Albanico, you’re a great teacher who knows everything about books and opera and languages, you prefer chalk stripes to pinstripes, green is your favorite color… I am Anthony, we live together… and I am giving you my damn kidney tomorrow!”
Anthony clearly thought Charles had lost his mind.
“Have you lost your mind?” Anthony shouted.
“‘Man’s insanity is heaven’s sense!’”
Anthony stared at Charles blankly and then screamed. He actually screamed.
“It’s from “Moby Dick,” a novel you claim to have read! My god, did you read anything I assigned in class?”
Anthony had obviously had enough. He reached down and tossed a lifesaver to Charles. The fretted waters had pulled him farther from the boat.
“Can’t make me!”
“Yes I can!”
“This is making me? What if I refuse!”
“I’m giving you my kidney! What is your problem?”
That question again. Charles put a hand on the ring, then another. He felt his exhaustion and took a moment to catch his breath.
“You know what gift means in German, Anthony? Poison!”
“This is no time for your academic mumbo jumbo!” Anthony raised his arms like a supplicant.
The rope attached to the ring tautened as Roy pulled him to the boat. Charles tugged back, but Roy was younger and stronger and prettier. It was all so hopeless. So Charles did what he had to do and let go and turned away from Anthony.
The horizon hemmed him in like a quarantine line. The only way was down. Charles held his limbs together and sank like a blade. He heard at once the rush, the dark roil and torrent, of the sea itself, like being inside a song. It was not quiet or gentle. He maneuvered his body and propelled himself downward like a pearldiver, but wasn’t able to go far.
Charles surfaced and shouted, “Fuck you, Anthony!” because there was no one else to curse.
He descended feet first again, pushing his hands up over his head and together, as though clapping in slow motion. This worked better. Darkness pressed against his eyelids. The song grew louder, and his feet entered a layer of suddenly cold water. He clapped and clapped, willing a rogue stream to wrap around his ankles and drag him down and away. Charles opened his mouth and let the silvered air leave him. His heartbeat filled his chest, but nothing else happened. He tried to go down again with muscles that were too feeble, a body too buoyant. It was no use. He let himself go, slowly, to the surface, like a punctured pool toy.
“That’s it!” Roy shouted, diving in and coming up close to Charles with the eagerness of a seal. In one irresistible movement that surprised Charles with its speed, Roy clasped his thick arms around his chest from behind and hauled Charles back to the boat with short, powerful kicks. Charles howled at the violation and crashed his fists against the waves. When they reached the ladder, Roy pressed him against it.
“You little bitch! Climb the ladder or I’m throwing you over like a fucking fish.”
Charles made his own way with difficulty. He felt suddenly bewildered. His pulse fluttered and his breath was in rags. He noticed, as though it were not his own, that his body was shivering. Roy followed and threw him a bottle of water and a towel. Charles wrapped the towel around himself and sat on the floor. Waves slammed against the side of the boat, sending cold spray over them.
Roy was still panting when he turned to Charles. “You run crazy in these waters often?”
Charles stared into the middle distance.
“Well, you owe your friend here your life. That rip current is strong, and this wind is turning into a gale. You’d be dead if he didn’t get me.”
Soon they were motoring to shore over helter-skelter crests and troughs. Charles glanced up at Anthony. He was fixed on the open sea, like a sailor on dogwatch. The skin on his upper arms rose in tiny bumps. His T-shirt was ripped.
Charles began to cry. At first, his rescuers thought wind was siphoning tears from his old eyes. By the time they’d reached shore, however, neither was in doubt that the quivering man huddled on the floor was weeping.
After Charles had apologized to the entire rescue team for his actions, Anthony agreed to drive them along the north shore. They searched in silence for a restaurant, preferably one facing the sunset, to have supper. After a lengthy drive, they found a diner called Liquid Gardens. A pink neon mermaid swam between the azure words.
Sheets of evening sun slanted through a wall of windows and turned their booth into a brandy-colored hologram. The two men were tired and hungry. They grunted into padded faux-leather seats that wheezed beneath their weight.
“The sea is red,” said Charles, trying to smile.
“The sea. The sea is red.”
Anthony glanced out the window.
A waiter limped toward them. He was longhaired and very overweight. Charles couldn’t help reconstituting him as a ball of hot wax in a lava lamp.
“Please,” said Anthony.
Menus hit the table with a flat smack.
Charles felt lighter from all the time spent floating. He pulled at his wispy hair, stiff from salt. His skin was dry and flaky, like sun-baked seaweed. Before him, his beautiful companion was reading the menu like a book. Charles had to speak.
“See anything you like?” he asked. He tried to sound casual, but the effort left him exhausted.
Anthony cleared his throat. “Is every dish named after a song from the Sixties? Just our luck to have chosen a themed diner.”
“Anthony, please, I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault. I drove.”
“No, I mean, about today. I don’t know what got into me. I didn’t mean to make you seem as crazy as I was.”
Anthony finally looked at Charles.
“That would be impossible.” He put the menu aside and leaned his forearms against the table. “Why don’t you tell me what an owl king is, then?
“You know, you’re the owl king or whatever.”
Anthony deserved a good answer this time. From their perch, the sea appeared to have a webbed surface like a cantaloupe. The sun was lower now and dragging its claws over the water. He thought of the abundance hidden under that ruby seal, remembered the awful roar he’d heard there, and was relieved to be out of it. The horizon was etched clear and proper in its place. The waves that had spirited him away were undetectable. The wind Anthony had motored into to fetch him was just a muted sough as it cut around the diner’s edges.
“I don’t know, Anthony. I’m not sure I ever knew. ”
Anthony laid his hands down flat. “You’re such a dreamer, Charles, such a dreamer.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Let’s just say you don’t need to sink to the bottom of the sea to find what you’re looking for.”
“I still don’t get it.”
Anthony shrugged and looked over Charles’ shoulder. Charles turned, too. Their waiter had already come back for their order.
“What’ll it be boys?”
“Could you tell me what a Moby Dick is?” asked Anthony.
“Scungilli. It’s whelk. Like eating rubber bands with tomato sauce.”
“In that case, I’ll have the Valleys of Neptune.”
The waiter looked at Charles, who gave the menu a quick perusal.
“Um… Atlantis. I’ll have the Atlantis.”
He put his pen behind his ear and limped away, listing badly and singing to himself, “Way down below the ocean, where I wanna be…”
Anthony rolled his eyes and leaned forward for a better view of the sea. Pale scratches crazed his tanned forearms. Charles made to touch him, but quickly withdrew. Cutlery and thick plates appeared between them. A pitcher filled their glasses with water. Charles needed to say something more, he knew, but any possible word broke apart like stale bread in his mouth. He filled his lungs a few times, intending to expel at least a conciliatory phrase, but all that left him was his breath.
A small beep sounded from his surfer’s watch. It was time. As mechanically as though he’d been doing so all his life, Charles removed the pillbox from his shirt pocket. It was plastic and translucent blue, shaped like a coracle and divided in two compartments, one for day and one for night. Inside were three long gray pills, his first dose of cyclosporine.
“They smell like beer,” Charles said after he’d opened the lid. Anthony continued to look out the window. A yacht struggled to stay upright and make it to harbor.
Charles removed a pill and rocked it back and forth in his palm. He was tempted to crack it open and see what charms it contained. When he held it up between his forefinger and thumb, he made out tiny letters and a number inscribed on the surface.
Maybe it was just medicine after all.
The first pill required an effort. Charles had to drain his glass for it to descend past his epiglottis. He reached for Anthony’s water, downing the second one in two swallows. By the final dose he was ready. His jaw hinges clicked open and his tongue curled around the pill like an embrace. He cradled it and rolled it on the dome of his palate, grasped it in his teeth, pushed it through pursed lips and drew it back into his mouth, wrapping his tongue around it a last time and dragging it down into himself and away.
Eric Trump has published essays and articles in Health Affairs, Cerebrum, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He lives in New York.